Broadcasters Unite for Long Recovery
Last Sept. 11, over-the-air television in the nation's largest broadcast market was devastated. A year later - in the most ambitious rebuilding effort in the history of broadcasting - progress comes painfully slow in a process so unprecedented that it's certain to rewrite the textbooks on television engineering.
A year ago, Ed Grebow led the broadcast equipment division at Sony Electronics. Today, he's a broadcasting diplomat. At any given moment, Grebow shifts gears from the role of television engineer to politician, real estate developer, architectural visionary, environmentalist or ornithologist with expertise on the migration habits of Manhattan's bird population.
His partner, Altan Stalker, a veteran former broadcast engineering executive at Group W and CBS, now finds himself on an ironic mission to update the birthplace of American television broadcasting. Stalker's immediate task is to cram the antennas of all of the city's television stations onto a 71-year-old steel mast originally designed for the mooring of 1930s-era passenger dirigibles.
Grebow, as president, and Stalker, as chief technology officer, are the key players in the Metropolitan Television Alliance (MTVA), an organization that represents 11 New York television stations who lost their primary transmission site after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Their mission is to restore terrestrial television broadcasting in the New York City metropolitan area.
Rebuilding efforts now focus on two primary fronts: an emergency upgrade of the 1,250-foot Empire State Building to allow all of the city's TV broadcasters to operate in at least a low-power mode; and the construction of a new antenna tower as a primary site to replace the trade center mast lost Sept. 11.
UNITED WE BROADCAST
Neither is a trivial project. Just accommodating nine additional television stations on the crowded Empire State Building antenna mast is a huge engineering challenge that won't be completed until at least the end of the year. The new tower, once a suitable location is found, is slated - at 2,000 feet - to be the tallest freestanding structure in the world.
As they face the daunting tasks ahead, a group of broadcast station executives that rarely cooperated on anything before last Sept. 11 are now meeting regularly to reassess the fundamentals of their business.
In the past year, said Grebow, the broadcasters have - after acknowledging the rapid growth of pay television services - reaffirmed their long-term commitment to over-the-air transmission and decided to spend the anticipated $200 million it will cost to build the new tower.
To the station owners in America's most lucrative television market, over-the-air viewers still matter. A year after the tragedy, Grebow noted, nearly one million New York-area residents, dependent on terrestrial broadcasts, still are unable to receive signals or continue to have impaired reception.
With this renewed allegiance to over-the-air transmission came a new awareness of redundancy, robustness and security in the broadcast infrastructure. "The past year has changed the New York broadcasters' attitude toward the over-the-air signal and infrastructure in a very important way," Grebow said. "Broadcasters here no longer take their transmitters as a given. They are now very concerned about the quality of their signal, the robustness of the plant, and propagation issues they never thought of before outside the engineering department."
This new focus - in a time of tight broadcast budgets - is a major development, noted Grebow. "It will have a very significant financial impact on stations. But television broadcasters now realize that infrastructure backup and security are essential."
A TOUGH NUT
As the broadcasters regroup, they've returned to the historic skyscraper where American television transmissions began. Opened in 1931, the Empire State Building was at the time the tallest building in the world and New York City's prime antenna site.
Empire's 85th floor was home to RCA's first experimental television station, which began broadcasting shortly after the skyscraper opened. The building remained the city's premier RF transmission site until the completion of the 110-story World Trade Center in the early 1970s.
"Right now the focus is to get the analog signal back to the greatest extent that's practical," said Stalker. "Before winter, we will have replaced antennas on the mast to allow better circularity for a number of stations that are now sitting on the edges of the tower structure. They will be using as much power as they can, but that will still be considerably below what they are authorized to use."
As the interim upgrades progress at Empire, the MTVA is planning a new antenna tower that can support both digital and analog television transmission as well a host of radio and emergency communications facilities.
So far, the obstacles have been significant. The broadcasters' first choice for a location is Governor's Island, a site off the southern end of Manhattan. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, has refused to support the tower, hoping to use the site for construction of an extension of the City University of New York.
Bloomberg, a multimedia information pioneer before becoming mayor, will be a tough nut for the broadcasters to crack. In a 1994 interview with TV Technology after his purchase of New York City radio station WNEW (now WBBR), the often acerbic Bloomberg related his experience attending an NAB convention in the early 1990s.
"What struck me [about the broadcasters] was there wasn't a good idea [among them] since 1929," he said. "When you talk to [broadcasters] their whole thought process was, 'How do we do well within the constraints of what we've been doing?' Nobody ever looked at the forests. These were tree people."
LOOKING AT JERSEY
Without the mayor's support, the MTVA is now focused on finding a site in New Jersey. For a freestanding tower constructed of either concrete or steel, the location must be at least three acres and within 3.2 miles of New York City. It must meet zoning requirements and cannot block aviation activity or have negative environmental effects, such as interference with migrating birds.
And, because the tower will be the tallest freestanding structure in the world, it must strive to be a world-class architectural landmark. "We can't build an ugly tower," said Grebow of the construction project expected to take 24 months to complete. "This will be a collaboration between broadcast engineering and the finest architects in the land."
Added Stalker: "It also has to be very functional. With digital transmission, that's got be a pretty stable structure. You can't have that antenna wiggling all over the place when the wind blows."
Not that Stalker isn't already encountering some interesting structural issues at the Empire State Building. Though Empire's management has provided additional space for broadcast facilities on the 77th, 78th and 79th floors, there's currently not enough electrical power for all the transmission requirements.
Using various pipe chases through the building, electricians are snaking cables from the street that will bring an additional 3 MW of power to the upper level broadcast facilities. The cables are now about two-thirds of the way to the top floors.
"Once that's completed, digital goes forward," said Stalker. "CBS has offered their digital antenna, which has been on the Empire State Building since day one. That antenna can be diplexed and will probably end up supporting five or six digital services. Nearly everybody will be fully digital by year's end."
Diplexing analog antennas is also helping address an aperture shortage on Empire, Stalker said. "Channel 7, 9, 11 and 13 are all sharing a single-bay antenna. Channel 4 and 5 also share a single bay antenna," he said. "Other stations are now trying to move from the lower mooring mast to a position on the main mast where they can obtain better circularity."
Though all the stations could eventually operate at full power from atop the Empire State Building, it would require structural modifications to the mooring and antenna masts as well as an entirely new antenna stack, taking the existing stations off the air for months.
"It's technically possible to do this, but it's not practical to take everybody off the air," said Grebow. "It might be done sometime down the road, but it will be after we get the new tower up."
As the restoration of New York City's television transmission infrastructure crawls forward, broadcasters are acutely aware of how fragile their on-air link to viewers has become. "If anything happened to the Empire State Building today, we'd have a very serious situation in New York," Grebow noted. "There is no quality backup now and we're all very aware of that."
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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